Participation in the Kingdom of God: A Fresh Reading of the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4)

Happy Sunday everyone.

I had a real epiphany this morning reading through a portion of Mark’s Gospel. It comes from Mark Chapter 4 and the Parable of the Sower.

Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not precieve, and may indeed listen and not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:1-34

All my life I have been conditioned to read this passage unconcsiously from a deterministic point of view. If God is the sower this means that God is deliberately sowing these seeds in places that bring about specific outcomes of faith (or lack of it) according to His elective purposes. After all, the above passage seems to indicate that those on the inside are given the knowledge of their salvation while those on the outside are deliberately kept from knowing this salvation. Which for me always seemed to shift the emphasis of this parable towards the fact that there is only one good option on this “lottery” list, should I be lucky enough to be one of the seeds sown on the rich soil. That doesn’t seem like great odds.

I don’t think I had ever realized I was reading it from a deterministic direction until I realized how it is that I interepret this whole section as a proclamation of my salvation in one direction or another. How I read it in line with the phrase “nothing that is hidden except to be revealed”, inferring this to mean that in Jesus the good seed and the bad seed will be made known according to the will of the Father, which istelf occurs according to God’s deliberate opening or hardening of hearts, a phrase that surfaces in Mark 6:52 as a proclamation (Jesus Walking on the Water) and in Mark 8:17 as a question referencing their failure to understand the purpose of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. Your hearts are hardened followed by, “are your hearts hardened”, or better put, “are your hearts still hardened”.

The irony of this being that while deterministic views tend to emerge from a Tradition that desires to deemphasize a works based righteousness, to be the good seed in the Parable of the Sower remains a works based prospect in this deterministic mindset- “hear” the word, “accept” the word, and bear fruit thiry and sixty and hundredfold. A good Calvinist reading, for example, would say that this fruit is the sign of the spirit’s work within you which lets you know that you have been elected to faith. You are the seed God determined to be planted on good soil, therefore trust in the truth, this given knowledge, that you will hear the word, accept it and bear fruit thirty and sixty and hundredfold. How many times have I been told by this perspective that “one just knows” if they are saved or not, or that the simple “desire” to know indicates our election, our being the good seed. And if you don’t, well, that then is God’s will for you. God is the one who sowed the seed where it couldn’t grow after all.

And then I encountered this in Mary Healy’s pastoral commentary on Mark. She writes from a Catholic perspective.

“The explanation of the parable of the sower would have resonated with Mark’s audience as a powerful word of encouragment… It can lead the participants, and indeed all of us, to reflect on the dangers in our lives that threaten the fruitfulness of the word. What kind of soil am I? (And) What obstances are there, and how will I overcome them?”

Mary Healy (The Gospel of Mark)

I read this and I thought, why have I never read this passage as an encouragement before? Why have I never considered this parable as an actual invitation to participation in God’s Kingdom work, as seems to be pertinant for Mark’s Gospel? It’s becuase I have been taught to read it from a deterministic lens. Caught between that feeling of chosenness and not being chosen, and thus forced to interpret the work of Christ as necessarily distinguishing between insiders and outsiders as a matter of God’s choosing one over the life of another in whatever that great mystery becomes. Recognizing this allowed the whole section of Mark 1-6 to open up for me in a whole new way.

All 6 chapters are designed according to this shared trajectory that is made clear in the paired stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. The raising of the 12 (divided tribes) in line with the 7 loaves/fish (new creation) as the revealing of the Kingdom of God being established here on earth for the sake of the whole world, not just this the good seed. This culiminates in chapter 8 with this pattern that emerges from the story of John the Baptist, where John’s ministry foreshadows Jesus’ ministry and where John’s death foreshadows Jesus death. As the call arrives, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospels will save it” (8:34-35), what we find is a call towards reponse and repentance, a change in direction, a decision to follow in the way Jesus is heading and actually participate in this Kingdom work. What emerges from this is that the seed being sown is not different seed, rather is it is the nature of the soil that is different.

What is being revealed in this is not an arbitrary affirmation of my peronal salvation, but rather the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has been made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus, who arrived in line with the prophetic ministry and in light of this new creation story that is now unfolding. The good soil is the truth of who Jesus is and the Kingdom He proclaims, and the call to be aware of the soil we are tilling is wrapped up in te call to “follow” Jesus in the way He is headed. This brings to light the phrase in 4:24 where it says, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you.” How clear is this call towards willfull and open participation in this Kingdom building. This is a new beginning, not some arbitrary proclamation of a pre-determined end. This is about something bigger than simply resting in the security of our personal salvation. It is about what the death and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes and what this new reality is now. What it brings forth in our present reality. This is the hidden mystery being made known through this “Kingdom” based parable.

We are not determined by where God has sown us, but rather the sowing unfolds as a call to participate in the unfolding of this Kingdom according to the kind of soil that will bear the fruit of this Kingdom imagination, this new reality. And we participate in this as Kingdom builders by responding to the challenges that keep this seed from growing in Christ. If we are not rooted in the soil of Jesus’ ministry, this love bearing, sacrifical ministry, victory claiming ministry, the fruit of this participation cannot grow. What bears fruit is the ministry of Christ, and thus we are called to imitate this ministry in our lives by participating in this ministry and allowing it to be made known in our lives. The only thing determined in this equation is the truth that Jesus has arrived and that Jesus has established this new creation in our midst. The truth that Jesus embodies, the knowledge of this mystery being unveiled through the Cross and Resurrection.

Consider this from Mary Healy’s commentary regarding this idea of insiders and outsiders found in 4: 12

Unsure of the meaning of the parable, they ask Jesus to explain. In reply, he draws a contrast between his disciples, to whom the mystery of the kingdom has been granted, and those outside, to whom everything comes in parables. This pronouncement is one of the most difficult in the Gospel. Taken at face value it sounds as if Jesus has deliberately excluded some people from the kingdom by cloaking his words in mystery to avoid being understood. How are we to interpret this cryptic statement? The key lies in understanding “mystery,” a word that is used only here in the Gospels (see Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10), but often in the teaching of St. Paul.

Mary Healy (The Gospel of Mark)

Healy goes on to describe this mystery as God’s plans which are rooted in the story of the Hebrew scriptures. God’s plan for creation, and God’s bringing about something new in the new creation, out of the muck and mire of a Sin soaked world. She goes on to say,

They are a mystery not because God wants them unknown, but because they become known only by revelation… God’s hidden purposes are not a puzzle to be figured out, nor can they be grasped by any human intellectual methods. Like the secrets of any person’s heart, they can be known only if one freely chooses to disclose them. That is why Jesus says elsewhere that his gospel is “hidden from the wise and the learned” but “revealed to little children” (Matt 11:25; Luke 10:21). Jesus is calling his disciples to recognize that they have been granted an immense privilege (see Matt 13:17): to them the mystery of the kingdom, present in the person and teaching of Jesus, has been unveiled. The parable of the sower has prepared them to understand the mystery that he will later teach explicitly: his kingdom will be established in a hidden and unexpected way—not through a triumphant conquest, but by way of suffering, setbacks, and seeming failure. It is a mystery that will culminate in the cross.

Mary Healy (The Gospel of Mark)

Constrasting this with this notion of “outsiders”, she goes on to say,

But what about those outside? Jesus describes their predicament with a quotation from Isaiah (Isa 6:9-10).32 In the context of the passage, God forewarns Isaiah that he would be called to preach judgment to Israel at a time when the people were mired in sin and injustice, and so his message would meet with stubborn resistance. The forceful language does not mean that God himself will block the people’s ears and eyes. Rather, the prophet’s message will cause the people to blind and deafen themselves to avoid hearing it, in order to persist in their rebellion. Jesus, likewise, is addressing a wayward generation, many of whom will harden themselves to avoid grasping the implications of his words. His parables, by their hidden depths veiled in simplicity, will cause a separation by the response they evoke in listeners’ hearts. For those who ponder the parables with sincere openness, the mystery of the kingdom will be gradually unveiled. But for those who prefer to persist in their own rebellious ways, the parables will remain opaque: so that they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand. Their obstinacy hinders them from attaining the goal of all Jesus’ teaching: that they be converted and be forgiven. The tone of Jesus’ words expresses a longing in the heart of God, as if God were saying: “If only you would listen, my people!” (see Deut 30:10; Ps 81:13-14; Luke 19:42). Yet his pronouncement hints at a theme that Paul will later develop in great detail (Rom 9-11): even the hardening of part of Israel—the refusal of many Jews to accept the gospel—is within God’s plan and will in the end contribute to the full and glorious accomplishment of his mysterious purposes.”

Mary Healy

What’s signficant about the way she unfolds this notion of the hardening of hearts is that this bears itself out as a persistant opportunity to make good out of the messiness of our reality. This is what follows in the Genesis nature when we are said to till the ground against all manners of things that can keep fruit from growing. Thus when Jesus follows up the parable of the sower with the parable of the “growing seed”, the inference is placed on the establishing and growing of this Kingdom, not simply my personal salvation. As we participate in this kingdom work, the promise is that the spirit meets us and works within us bringing about the fruitfulness of this marriage, this relationship between God, Humanity and the new creation. As the dominant theme of the Genesis narrative reemerges, we are reminded that we, all of us, not simply some chosen remnant or elect, were created in the image of God to be image bearers. The picture is one that sees the whole cosmos as God’s temple, and us as the idols placed at its center, the last thing normally placed in ancient temples to literally imagine, in a very real sense, God’s dwelling within that temple. When Jesus is said to be the new temple, what this is saying that we are all now placed in Jesus who occupies the entire cosmos, and we are placed as His image bearers. That is how it is when we wake up and look at the seed sprouting and growing and say “we know not how”. We only know that Jesus has been revealed, and that in Him, God’s very dwelling place, the new creation is being brought to fruition. And in some mysterious way our participation in this new creation work bears fruit. This is the context for the raising of the 12, the symbolic bringing together of the divided tribes for the sake of the whole world, God’s Kingdom domain. God could have done this without our help, without our participation. The great truth found in the mystery of the Cross is that God invites our participation. He is using us to bring about the Kingdom in the truth of a crucified and raised Christ.

How much richer is this vision than the deterministic view which has hampered my reading of this passage for so many years. A vision for this passage that has whittled it down to my election, my personal salvation instead of this picture of the Kingdom come in the whole of the cosmos, God actually taking residence in our midst and amongst the created order by way of this relationally driven and relationally concerned spirit driven call to participation. A participation that has a cosmological perspective. A participation that has the whole world in mind. The chosen few called to be a light to the whole world, not the world being remade for a chosen few. That’s why the parable of the sower can be read as an encouragement. How exciting this becomes when these options aren’t simply the luck of a lottery draw, but an actual picture of this move towards participation in the hope of the spirits involvement in our lives and in all of creation, looking to bring about something new in our willing participation for the sake of the whole world.

As a side note, this also makes so much sense read in line with Mark 1, where Jesus implores the leper of 1:40-45 not to tell anyone of his healing, only to have him go and tell everyone and literally redirect Jesus’ projected path. Literally interrupting Jesus’ ministry and forcing Jesus to have to readjust that path, to take another road. Read this through a deterministic lens and you come to “the hardened hearts” inference twice mentioned and once again bearing out the same problem. God is directing all of this, pulling the strings all so that a select elect few will be saved. That to me feels like such a narrow and sad view of this Kingdom work. Once we see these passages not in line with some future sanctification but rather in line with what is being accomplished in the death and Resurrection of Christ and this New Creation reality, it unfolds as a clear call towards allegiance to this new reality. Get in on the work God is doing in and through His created order and then trust that it will bear fruit. This is what faith is all about. This notion of a determined and progressive sanctification is built around a works based theology that sees salvation as a matter of achieving some kind of moral perfection. The declaration becomes salvation through faith with sanctification bearing this out to completion with God’s judgment of a world full of bad seed. This is a wrong view of sanctification. Rather, sanctification in the OT, according to the book Already Sanctified, is the active preparation for entering into God’s work. It is tied to the act of repentance, this turning and looking and moving in a different direction than we once were. This exchanges a focus on morality for the work of Christ, the belief that in Christ something has happened in the here and now to change and transform our reality. The Powers have been defeated, the new creation has begun. As John’s Gospel projects, to borrow from the words of theologican N.T. Wright, this is a new “Genesis”. “In the beginning was the Word” John says, with his entire Gospel pulling from this imagery to imagine this text in the light of Christ’s ministry. This is the truth that Christ proclaims and that his ministry both anticipates and brings about. Thus, just as the call in the garden was to “create”, to “make”, the call in the new creation, full of all of this same garden imagery, is to create, to make. To willfully participate in what God is doing. And we do so in the image of the Creator.

It is no misstep that the first thing Jesus does is hand this Kingdom work over to us, which is risky business indeed. This is an outflow of God’s love for His Creation. Seems to me like there could have been a more direct way towards this end if not for the desire to be in relationship with His Creation. This is the way in which God desires to bring about this new reality, a working partnership between us and the spirit that dwells within us transforming this reality in the truth of this new creation vision, and in this we come to know the truth of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing, which as we read in Mark’s Gospel is really the whole point of this insider/outsider language. It’s written into the pattern of the text, the Markean “sandwich” if you will, with these stories packaged together in parallel fashion, each section commenting on the other. The wondering of Herod in knowing who this Jesus is in chapter 6 paralleled with the declaration of Peter of Jesus as the Christ in chapter 8. The death of John paralleled with the death of Jesus, just as John’s ministry of repentance leads to the call to follow in the way of Jesus’ ministry by bearing one’s own cross. Ths new creation, this new Kingdom reality will come about, even if this partnership with us means a few detours along the way. And we can know this precisely because in Jesus, who arrives according to the scriptures and in the ministry of the prophets, has indeed brought it about despite the exile that has scattered them and us as a divided people. As all four Gospels imagine, the New Exodus has happened and as we make our way through the desert we can trust that this is bringing about a new reality, raising up a people to unify the world. Through the 12 the nations will be united for the sake of God’s love reaching out through all the world, through the whole cosmos. Out of His great love for the world God has given a way for the spirit to be present in relationship to the whole of this creation, and that way is Jesus. And when this truth comes to us as revealed knowledge? When this truth arrives at our feet as an eye opening revelation? It arrives as an invitation to participate in the mystery of this Kingdom work, to be God’s image bearers with the spirit made alive in each of us, the planted seed able to grow in abundance and love and fruitfulness as we watch this participation grow into something special, something that has in mind the whole world. So heed the words of Jesus as he brings this question to all of us,

And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Mark 8:17-21

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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